FBI Used Flawed Forensics to Incriminate Defendants

FBI personnel overstated hair matches in ways that favored the prosecution.

FBI personnel overstated hair matches in ways that favored the prosecution.

For over 20 years prior to 2000, nearly every examiner in a FBI forensic unit gave tainted testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants.

The FBI previously stated that the errors were the work of a single examiner, but the latest review reveals otherwise. Of 28 examiners in the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 examiners overstated their hair matches in ways that favored the prosecution in more than 95 % of the cases so far reviewed. An additional 1200 cases are yet to be reviewed. The Innocence Project and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACLD) are assisting in the review of the cases.

FBI experts testified to matches of crime scene hairs, backing their claims by citing incomplete or misleading statistics. According to an independent forensic consultant, the written reports on hair analysis were often accurate, but the evidence tended to be exaggerated way beyond the report when it was presented in court. There is no accepted research on how often hair from different people may appear the same.

The FBI errors were not necessarily the only evidence against the defendants, but those flawed forensic hair matches might have led to convictions of hundreds of potentially innocent people. Included in the 200 reviewed cases are 32 defendants sentenced to death; 14 of those have either been executed or died in prison. Five states executed at least one person convicted in a case using the tainted testimony. Those who are still alive have been sent letters explaining the mistakes and how DNA testing can be used to prove the evidence. Prosecutors and defendants are being notified so they can determine if there are grounds for appeals.

U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal said, “These findings are appalling and chilling in their indictment of our criminal justice system, not only for potentially innocent defendants who have been wrongly imprisoned and even executed, but for prosecutors who have relied on fabricated and false evidence despite their intentions to faithfully enforce the law.”

The FBI and Department of Justice have acknowledged the errors. The FBI made known   that prior to 2012 hair examiners did not have written standards defining scientifically  appropriate ways to explain results in court. Both agencies indicated in a joint written statement that they “are committed to ensuring affected defendants are notified of past errors and that justice is done in every instance. The Department and FBI are also committed to ensuring accuracy of future hair analysis, as well as the application of all disciplines of forensic science. ”

NACDL executive director  Norman Reimer said, “Hopefully, this project establishes a precedent so that in future situations it will not take years to remediate the injustice.”



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